Saturday, 4 October 2008
Can human's improve for ever? Can we keep running faster, jumping higher, throwing farther? Or is there a limit to our improvement? I saw this interesting chart in the Economist a few weeks ago that showed that while the men's 100m sprint time has improved by 9% in the last 100 years, the swimming 100m time has improved by 28%. Given human limits, we would expect the record curves to start flattening out as time goes (asymptotic for you math geeks), but it appears the running times will stop improving long before the swimming times. Why is that?
Lets first try to get a grip on why running times have improved so far. Apart from more scientific training, commercial and sponsorship opportunities have afforded athletes to become dedicated professionals. They can hire mental and physical coaches, physiotherapists, form trainers and depend on video analysis. Also, athletes can relax about their economic well being and focus on their "job", while even previous greats like Jesse Owens had to resort to racing horses to make money.
So while improvement in running appears primarily due to physical conditioning, plummeting swimming records seem to owe much more to vastly better understanding of bio-mechanics and human hydrodynamics. Swimmers are now coached to take longer strokes and to stay under water longer after turns. Technological progress like the new LZR Speedo suit seems to have contributed its share too. The answer to why we can improve more in swimming than running might just be the product of our evolution. We simply have more to learn about how to swim than about how to run.